Addressing Racial Inequity in Education Abroad Advising Practices: A Pilot Study

Neal McKinney, Doctoral Candidate, The Ohio State University

The current climate of education abroad appears to be making a long overdue turn toward centering equity-minded research and practices that particularly benefits racially minoritized

U.S. college student populations. Recently published research confirms that education abroad is not only a beneficial co-curricular opportunity for U.S. college students toward degree completion, but also that participating in education abroad increases likelihood of on-time graduation and higher GPA for U.S. college racially minoritized students.

Additionally, publications specifically centering inclusive excellence in education abroad and social justice in international education are providing clearer road maps to moving from words to action. To date, however, many education abroad practitioners and scholars still appear to remain fixated on centering the 30-year-old rationale that because racially minoritized students possess cultural differences from white students–fears of stereotype threat, unrealistic beliefs about future education plans, and financial hardships–these differences constrain their “lack” of participation in education abroad.

This rationale of difference is valid and persuasive, and has helped launch a number of important initiatives toward increasing Black and Latinx student participation rates, such as Generation Study Abroad, CIEE’s Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship, and, of course, The Forum for Education Abroad’s re-envisioned standards that include diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, contemporary education abroad scholars and practitioners (myself included) are beginning to call attention to incongruence between the call for equity-minded research and practice and the field’s overreliance on the rationale of cultural differences. In short, we contend that such incongruence is not conducive to realizing intentional systematic equity for racially minoritized students in education abroad.

I began to notice this incongruence as I transitioned from a full-time education abroad professional into a Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University in 2020. Initially unsure what to pursue as a dissertation topic, I was encouraged by a classmate to consider what are the stories sitting on my heart that I feel like need to be told. This led me to reflect on my work in education abroad, specifically my interests to increase the participation of racially minoritized students, the successes I achieved, and the challenges I faced.

These reflections led me to wonder about education abroad personnel’s motivations to prioritize racially minoritized students in their advising practices. I began to search through existing education abroad publications, and my review of literature brought me to find that the rationale of differences is almost exclusively endorsed as the sole rationale for racially minoritized students’ underrepresentation. Furthermore, I came to the conclusion that the field has yet to explore alternatives to explain why racially minoritized students are underrepresented. This realization both surprised and troubled me and has led me to begin questioning what other factors, aside from the differences rationale, leads to low participation rate of racially minoritized students.

Translating Questions into Research

Last summer, I had the opportunity to begin exploring an alternative justification for racially minoritized student underrepresentation via an internship with The Forum. In my internship, I pitched the idea to conduct a qualitative pilot research study to understand if similarities and differences exist between education abroad personnel and The Forum’s guidelines and best practices offered on advising, specifically for racially minoritized students.

I based this idea on higher education retention and persistence research. These bodies of research popularized similar beliefs to the differences rationale, in that racially minoritized students are less successful in higher education than their white peers because they possessed different cultural backgrounds. Contemporary higher education scholars have roundly critiqued these studies as being based in racialized deficit perspectives and have called for more culturally-centered approaches to support racially minoritized students’ success in college.

Thus, with the support of The Forum, I designed a similar concept for my pilot study. I used critical race theory as a theoretical lens to acknowledge the historical fact that racially minoritized students have been subjected to exclusion in higher education since its founding. From this theoretical framing, I came up with the following research questions:

  1. In what ways do education abroad advising practitioners (EAAPs) describe their advising practices?
  2. How do these advising narratives reflect an equity or deficit-oriented mindset toward racially minoritized students’ participation in education abroad?

With the support of The Forum, I reviewed advising resources issued by The Forum (e.g., Guidelines for Education Abroad Advising), and I interviewed four participants for 60 minutes via Zoom. Each participant had to have at least five years of experience working in education abroad with the equivalent of 50% of their job responsibility advising students, and whose responsibilities involve any efforts to engage college students’ participation in studying abroad while they are enrolled at an accredited U.S. institution. In the interviews, I asked a number of key questions, such as:

  • What values do you believe are important in advising? Why?
  • What does Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) mean to you as a value and how do you think it shows up in your advising practice?
  • What are the rewards and challenges of JEDI in your advising practice?

As I sought to look at how EAAPs describe their advising practices in the first research question, I specifically analyzed the interview transcripts for phrases or statements that reflected beliefs and values about advising. Then, I organized the statements according to how similar or different they were from one another, and I finally used a cognitive mindset framework to identify if the statements reflected an equity or a deficit mindset.

Study Findings & Emergent Conclusions

In the pilot study, participants largely described that in their advising, they valued meeting all students where they are and understanding and validating their individual needs in their decisions to go abroad. Simultaneously, participants also identified that, in their advising practices, they valued JEDI as important in advising historically minoritized students (inclusive of racially minoritized students). These, findings are consistent with The Forum’s Guidelines for Education Abroad Advising in that “effective education abroad advising approaches students with a focus on their strengths and unique identities” and “to reach traditionally-underserved student populations, use an individualized approach that acknowledges students’ unique experiences and developmental levels.”

However, I noted inconsistencies in how participants interchangeably discussed racially minoritized students, sometimes as “diverse students” or grouping racially minoritized students in with other identities, such as first-generation and low-income (see below). I also noted contradictions between interview participants’ descriptions of their advising practice and The Forum’s guidance on enacting inclusive policies and practices.

Despite valuing the importance of JEDI and meeting students where they are, the participants also expressed statements that were reflective of a deficit-mindset when specifically discussing racially minoritized students. Key quotes below from the interviews exemplify this dynamic.

                                                     Note: Names in parentheses are pseudonyms assigned to study participants.

Though these findings are not generalizable, they do provide some meaningful implications that can be transferable more broadly.

The findings convey that education abroad practitioners appear to be aligned with values that The Forum puts forth on advising when asked to talk about advising more broadly. Moreover, the findings also convey that practitioners are generally aligned with The Forum’s aims of equity and inclusion when it comes to increasing participation for historically-minoritized students.

However, the findings also implicate that practitioners are potentially creating unintentional barriers to participation by utilizing inconsistent terminology when discussing racially minoritized students, as well as employing implicit deficit-oriented mindset when specifically discussing the challenges in advising racially minoritized students. This finding is unsurprising given the presence of critical scholarship that questions the presence of deficit-based mindset in educational practices with racially minoritized students.

Unsettling the Underrepresentation Rationale for Good

I believe that the implications of this pilot research study, despite its small sample size, are pertinent toward transforming the ways in which education abroad advising can be more intentional about educational equity for racially minoritized students. Though the education abroad field is still recovering from the initial hit of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is a prominent opportunity to engage in a self-reflexive exercise to examine how we can be more culturally responsive to racially minoritized students interested in education abroad that pushes against the harms of the underrepresentation rationale. Cultural responsiveness requires us to do more than just acknowledge and appreciate the differences of racially minoritized students, but to earnestly push back against the deficit-based mindsets that legitimize the underrepresentation rationale to be so influential.

Principally, I believe that education abroad practitioners possess the ability to become more aware of and work against the implicit deficit-based mindsets that have largely shaped the rationale of underrepresentation. To be clear, awareness is not enough, intentional and meaningful changes to policies and practices must also take place at both a systemic and individual level in education abroad. I’ve recommended to The Forum’s staff that they should take the lead on systemic change in the short term by developing internal workshops with Forum staff and trainers to recognize individual and organizational engagement of bias/deficit-thinking that promotes racism, classism, elitism in advising.

At the individual level, I strongly urge education abroad practitioners to intentionally turn the mirror on ourselves and critically reflect on how we collectively are susceptible to embody the same inconsistencies and contradictions that place racially minoritized students as the center of the problem of underrepresentation. Even as a Black, Queer, first-generation, cis-gendered man myself, I, too, have been taken by the persuasiveness of the underrepresentation rationale. The rationale is persuasive because it is rooted in centuries-old historical narratives of higher education that only certain students (white, cisgender, men) are deserving of an education. Over time, this elitist, racist, and classist rhetoric has been covertly translated into theories and practices that celebrate student merit, involvement, and achievement that ultimately still benefit those students, and not racially minoritized students.

Though the field of education abroad has transformed significantly over the past 50 years to strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion, we have to be willing to disrupt the status quo practices that ultimately places the onus on racially minoritized students to fix a problem they did not create. Instead, we must take the onus to fix the problem by taking stock of how we implicitly perpetuate biases that convince us that racially minoritized students are responsible for their underrepresentation, not the institutional systems we work for. Fortunately, once again, there are education abroad researchers and practitioners who are taking this very step and positioning the cultural strengths of racially minoritized students at the forefront of their work in education abroad.

As for my own action steps, my forthcoming dissertation research seeks to further exploration into the thread of contradiction by studying: a) how Education Abroad Advising Personnel’s (EAAPs) specifically construct stories about Black and Latinx students’ low participation in education abroad, and b) to understand how Black and Latinx students perceive these stories about their low participation. I aim for my dissertation research to empower education abroad leaders to take charge of their own (un)learning around identifying deficit-based mindsets, and to prioritize using approaches that leverage Black and Latinx students’ cultural assets to boost their participation in education abroad programs. Though it takes time to chip away at institutionalized racial inequity, I sincerely look forward to using my research to the best of its abilities to unsettle the underrepresentation rationale for good. I invite the field to join me in this worthwhile endeavor.